By SM Farid Mirbagheri
Is the Syrian carnage nearing the endgame? Perhaps. There are now indications that the continued violence in the country may soon run out of fuel. The considerable blows to ISIS in recent weeks is set to further push the radical Islamist group into a state of political insignificance, at least for a while. Also as the new US administration gradually comes to grips with the realities of the tragedy, and attempts to map out an overall strategy in place of the passivity of the Obama era, the main players in the Syrian civil war may prefer to bring the war to an end before Washington begins to enter the arena. In particular they do not wish to provoke the White House into military action in Syria.
The premature withdrawal of US troops from Iraq in 2011 created a vacuum that led to the establishment of ISIS. The Syrian crisis and the shifting regional alliances appeared to facilitate the spread of the extremist group towards the north. The Shi’a-Sunni rivalry in particular, represented in the rift between Tehran and Riyadh, fanned the flame of ISIS, which considers Shi’as non-Muslims.
Now, however, ISIS members and sympathisers know that the concept of new Islamic khilafat they have so vigorously sought to establish will probably have to remain just that: a concept, at least for the foreseeable future. There is absolutely no indication that either the Muslim polity at large or various Islamic governments are in any shape or form prepared to accede to a central command system regulated and presided over by Abubakr Al-Baghdadi or any of his disciples. That in itself must disappoint at least some of ISIS supporters and diminish their zest for greater individual sacrifice.
Moscow, aided by the inactivity of the previous US administration, has deftly utilised the UN and Ankara to put itself centre stage in Syria. Having secured international recognition for its role over the future of the country, Russia would be ill-advised to risk that achievement over a protracted war of attrition, especially when shifting alliances are now breathing a new lease of life into Arab-Washington ties.
As Hezbollah is trying to ground some of its forces in the adjacent Golan areas, Tel Aviv is increasingly uneasy about the possible configuration of forces in Syria now and after a settlement. Accordingly the one-day visit of Prime Minister Netanyahu to the Kremlin last month aimed to stress to President Putin that Israel would not tolerate Iran or any of its proxies stationed in the areas considered strategically sensitive by Tel Aviv. Moscow appears to have concurred.
Meanwhile Iran, aware of President Trump’s change of direction, wants to make sure it still has Moscow on its side. President Rohani’s visit to Moscow sought to highlight that support and in return offered further use of Iran’s northern military air base for Russian fighter jets operating in Syria. However, Tehran is well acquainted with the requirements of realpolitik and that Moscow may well be tempted to forego Iranian goals in the light of greater benefits accrued over a deal with Washington possibly on the situation in Crimea and Ukraine. A deal over Syria, therefore, may be more favourable to Iran now rather than later.
And of course, the new resident of the White House would like to score his first big point after an initial phase of uncertainty. A Syrian settlement would perfectly fit that bill.
Politics, however, is full of surprises and as experienced notoriously unpredictable in West Asia. That having been said the correlates of a settlement that could end the war in Syria may now appear more prominent than before. That can offer greater hope for peace.
SM Farid Mirbagheri is professor of international relations and holds the Dialogue Chair in Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Nicosia